"So, yeah," Fred said, "this is my room."
"Nice," Willow said. She opened her mouth to say more, but Fred rushed on.
"I mean, it's kinda funky, and I haven't cleaned it recently, but the sheets are clean and I got rid of the shoes that had the demon blood on them, so the weird smell is gone --"
"Hey, easy there," Willow said, smiling. "It's fine. I appreciate you letting me crash here for a little bit before I head back to Sunnydale."
"Sorry," Fred grimaced. "I'm babbling again. Kinda feel like I'm back in seventh grade, inviting the cool girl up to my room."
Willow gave a small snort. "Yeah. Except I was a geek before I was a witch; and I was a dork long before that. So, cool girl? Not so much." As if to prove something, she flopped down on the foot of Fred's bed and began to haul off her boots.
Fred would have taken the armchair that usually sat in the corner, but she'd had to drag it out along with the demon-stained boots that had been on its seat, as well as the small pile of clothes that had been on top. So she gingerly took the bed's other side, kicking off her sandals to draw her feet up. It occurred to her suddenly that Willow, like Cordy, was actually younger than she was. Fred had had five years stolen from her, and Rip Van Winkle stories no longer seemed so funny.
Willow shucked off her jacket and dropped it over the side of the bed, then pulled up her legs into a loose lotus position. As Willow laid her hands upon her knees and closed her eyes, preparing to meditate, Fred stirred and said, "Maybe I should go ahead and leave you to rest."
"No," Willow said with eyes closed, "you can stay if you want. You're restful."
Fred had been called a lot of things, some of them even compliments, but "restful" wasn't one of them. She gave a self-deprecating laugh and lay back against her pillows. The bedside lamp cast a warm yellow glow over the darkness of the room, setting fire to Willow's hair, and Fred lay quietly, absorbing the sense of stillness in power that had come over the room: the folds of her comforter, the familiar streaks of paint along the ceiling, the fingerprints she kept meaning to clean off the light-switch plate.
"Do you think everything's going to be all right?" she asked, unable to help the urge to talk, even as she welcomed the quiet.
"With Angel?" Willow opened her eyes. "Or with everything else?"
"Well," Fred said awkwardly, "I guess I was starting with Angel and working outward."
Willow looked her in the eye, and gave a very small smile. Then she lifted a hand.
Over the walls of Fred's room, through last year's paint job, the scrawls of her odyssey in madness rose and glowed, undulating in their light, like clouds of fireflies over a night pasture. Fred went very still, feeling suddenly naked: she saw the glyph she'd drawn, of herself and Angel on the horse; she saw the words listen listen listen rise in light, one after the other; she saw the trails of equations, written in a hand by turns manically headlong and desperately precise.
Tears rose in her eyes and leaked, tickling, down her temples and into her hair. "How did you know?" she whispered.
"It talked to me," Willow said softly. "Your room, I mean."
"I wasn't...." Fred stopped, took a breath. "I wasn't well."
"I think you were, though." Fred looked over at her: she had let her hand fall, but the glow of the writing on the walls scarcely faded. She was reading a set of equations whose linkage Fred could now only struggle to remember. "That's a fractal, isn't it? Tell me about it."
Fred sat up and brushed away her tears. "It's...it's a logarithm for describing how things...get lost. If you can describe how things get lost, you know how to find them. If you can follow the path down, you can follow an opposing path back up. The details...."
Her voice lost its tremor and she began to explain the set, as much to remind herself as to inform Willow. And Willow's eyes were not glazing over, so she began to explain the link between this and her latest research, the research she had nearly lost to betrayal a second time over. You know what they say about payback? Well, I'm the bitch. She didn't say it out loud, but she felt as though merely by explaining the science, she could confess the wrong she had done as well as the wrong she had suffered.
Presently she stuttered to a halt and dropped her gaze to her lap. "I keep trying to explain things. I keep thinking it'll make me okay. I'm not sure it's working."
Willow reached out and stroked the top of Fred's foot where it lay close to her on the bed. Her hand was warm and dry and gentle. "I don't know if it works. But at least you're trying."
When Fred looked up, she saw Willow trying to give her an ordinary ironic smile. But real grief lay deep in the corners of her mouth.
"I don't think you know," Willow said, "what it means that you're trying. Somebody took something away from me. So I tried to kill the world. You tried to fix it." She looked away, and the hieroglyphs on Fred's walls dimmed.
A small silence fell. Then Fred leaned forward and kissed the corner of Willow's mouth, where the mark of grief was deepest.
Willow had seen it coming, and did not pull away; but Fred saw her give a startled blink.
Fred pulled back, flushing hot. "I didn't...I didn't mean to...."
She dried up as Willow met her eye: a look of utter equanimity passed between them, and Fred thought that never had the phrase murder to dissect been so clumsily untrue.
And then Willow kissed her.
Fred got lost, in a way that was both new and not so new: there was kissing, like a night full of fireflies lighting in waves; and there was touching, her hands and Willow's, over clothing and then under; and the light in the room turned the sheen of Willow's red hair to fractals of living energy.
Then Willow broke their kiss gently and laid her face down against Fred's collarbone; and Fred found herself again. She was in her own room, with its utterly familiar scent and light and the equally familiar sounds of L.A. night life outside her window. She felt older, as if those years she'd lost had been given back to her: restored. And yet the person she held in her arms had not ceased to be an equal.
As if Fred's mere thought had roused her, Willow raised her head. "Thanks for the rest," she said.
Fred smiled back, a smile calm and unforced. "You're welcome."